The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One of the nation’s best young lacrosse players confronts the lack of diversity in her sport

As Maryland teen Tiana Griffin rises through the ranks, racism remains a challenge

Tiana Griffin plays defense for the U.S. under-16 national lacrosse team during a match against Ontario in Sparks, Md., on Oct. 17, 2021. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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The moment Tiana Griffin began thinking differently about her lacrosse experiences arrived in July 2018 in a University of Maryland dorm room.

Griffin was listening to rap music with her roommates — one Black, one White — during a lunch break at a lacrosse camp that featured many of the D.C. area’s top players. The White girl asked a question: “If you can say [the n-word], how come I can’t call you that?”

Griffin, who would begin high school the next month, couldn’t grasp at the time why the comment upset her, but she erupted in tears on her family’s couch when she returned home. Griffin’s mother, Kim, had tried to shield her daughter from racism, but she thought Griffin deserved an explanation as she hugged her and wiped tears from her cheeks.

“Okay, baby, let me tell you just a little bit about this world,” Kim began.

In a sport that has long been overwhelmingly White, top Black players such as Griffin have navigated challenges to rise in its ranks. Griffin, a sophomore at Severn School in Severna Park, was one of 22 players selected for the U.S. under-16 national team this past fall. For both Severn and the U-16 team, Griffin is the only Black player.

Before diving into the high school season next month, Griffin has traveled the nation for showcases in hopes of attracting college coaches. On Monday, she will participate in an event at Loyola University in Baltimore.

As she tries to find her future home, Griffin and her family expect to face similar challenges that have consumed them since the 15-year-old became enamored with lacrosse four years ago.

“We can see that the coach has worked with African Americans or has been a part of a program that promotes diversity,” said Griffin’s father, Charles. “That would go a long way as far as us feeling comfortable with her being there. Especially with these big schools, you can kind of get lost in all that stuff.”

Learning lacrosse

The Griffin family learned lacrosse existed when one of Griffin’s seventh-grade field hockey teammates recommended she try the sport. The family lived in Upper Marlboro, where seeing neighbors playing basketball and football or challenging each other to races was common. But lacrosse was foreign to some in Prince George’s County, one of the area’s most diverse jurisdictions, where some high schools don’t field lacrosse teams.

Charles bought lacrosse sticks for Griffin and her younger brother, CJ, and the investment gradually grew from there. He later bought a tripod and stood at the top of the bleachers filming every game, and they would review the tape when they got home.

Despite Griffin displaying skills, many coaches only allowed her to play defense, the family said. According to local coaches, the majority of players recruited to play Division I lacrosse are midfielders because of the versatility and athleticism the position requires. Griffin grappled with the balance between being a team player and wanting an opportunity to develop.

When the Griffins asked coaches for feedback, they said coaches responded with the same critique: Griffin’s lacrosse IQ was low. The Griffins began asking deeper questions: What encompasses lacrosse IQ? How does Griffin improve it?

The family frequented Amazon to purchase more and more lacrosse books to study. Griffin woke up her parents every morning hitting a ball against their house.

Other problems persisted, such as White teammates refusing to pass to Griffin. Mark Mozier, the owner of the local Uproar lacrosse club and a coach for Griffin, said he yanked players out of games until they began passing to Griffin when she was open.

But one night in September 2020, Griffin returned home crying and declared she wanted to quit. Kim Griffin didn’t want to be a helicopter parent, but that’s when she felt she needed to step in.

“If you want my girl, there’s two things you got to do for me,” Kim told coaches. “One, you can’t lock her in and have her only play defense, because that’s what happens in this sport. African Americans are only in defense. Secondly, don’t let the refs treat her any kind of way. I need your protection. If you can do these two things for me, you can have my girl.”

After rotating between a half-dozen coaches, Kim felt relief when Peck Burmeister, a coach for the M&D Lacrosse Club, was adamant Griffin was a midfielder and invited her to join his club in January 2021.

Once she seized that opportunity, Griffin emerged as one of the nation’s top players for her age. She is also a standout in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference, one of the country’s most competitive high school leagues. Last spring she set a freshman record with 42 draw controls.

“She said she wants to play midfield,” Burmeister said. “And you don’t turn a player of that caliber away.”

Introduction to race

In a game in 2018 at the University of Maryland, Griffin yelled “Got ball” to signal to teammates she would take control of the ball. The referee blew his whistle and revealed a red card, ruling an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Griffin.

In the bleachers, Griffin’s parents wanted to march toward the field and yell. But they didn’t want Griffin to feel as if she was being treated unfairly because of her race, so they remained quiet.

Griffin’s parents have tried to locate the balance between helping their daughter understand stereotypes and protecting her innocence and optimism. But escaping lacrosse’s lack of diversity is tough.

According to the NCAA’s data from 2021, there were 421 Black women’s players across its three divisions. Meanwhile, there were 10,807 White players. For their children to get recruited, families pay thousands of dollars annually for club teams, showcases and equipment.

“There’s so many things she has had to overcome that she didn’t even pay attention to,” Charles Griffin said. “But us as parents, it was so hard. We would talk about it, but we didn't want to influence her and make her think negative about the sport.”

Attending middle school at Annapolis Area Christian, Griffin grappled with division between her Black and White friends. She didn’t understand why students typically sat with peers of their race at lunch or why her White friends frowned upon Black students’ style.

The family’s first conversation surrounding race occurred after the University of Maryland camp in 2018. The discussions intensified after George Floyd’s death in May 2020, but they didn’t translate to the field. When Griffin arrived at her first practice after the incident, she said her teammates stared at her. She said people avoided the topic the next few months.

“I just remember,” Griffin said, “feeling like an outsider for a few weeks.”

Breaking barriers

Last year, a college coach expressed interest in Griffin, who then contacted a Black friend who also had pursued that school. Griffin soon dropped the program from her top options. Her friend had heard from others that players and students at the school weren’t welcoming of Black players. Without other Black peers to offer insight, Griffin took her word for it.

Beginning Sept. 1, the NCAA will permit college coaches to contact Griffin and other soon-to-be juniors and invite them for official visits. Griffin has begun brainstorming questions to try to find an inclusive program.

Lacrosse’s diversity problems extend to the coaching ranks. According to the NCAA, there were 22 Black coaches — including assistants — among its three women’s lacrosse divisions last year. There were 1,032 White coaches.

“You wonder how [our question] is going to be received,” Charles Griffin said. “You could turn a coach off, like: ‘Is this going to be a problem? Do I have to deal with this?’ It’s kind of like, ‘How do I ask that question?’ ”

In many ways, the trials they have endured have prepared the Griffins for recruiting. Now Griffin has developed more thorough questions, such as asking coaches about an incident in which someone — a teammate, fan, coach — was disrespectful to a Black player and how the coaches responded.

Griffin knows there will always be moments she misses. Teammates braid each other’s hair before games, which Griffin performs for others but doesn’t want for herself. Even as she has traveled to colleges for camps the past few months, she has been one of the only Black players participating.

Growing up, Griffin didn’t have many role models but found a mentor in Morgan Dukes, a Black defender who played for Elizabeth Seton in Bladensburg and the University of Cincinnati. Griffin hadn’t met a Black college lacrosse player until she approached Dukes, who was training at Annapolis Area Christian.

The Griffins hope to create a community where Black families can advise each other on which college coaches and programs are welcoming. Kim Griffin fields calls and provides insight through social media to families that have questions.

Tiana Griffin joins her family on trips to Bowie for her young brothers’ football practices, where she bounces a lacrosse ball against a concession stand’s wall. One day, as kids around her tossed footballs, a Black child asked whether she could join Griffin. A few days later, she returned with a lacrosse stick to play catch.

“I never questioned if I belonged here," Griffin said, “because I know that I can be a trailblazer for people behind me."